AUSTIN, Texas -- New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin took to the stage here at the inaugural SXSW Eco conference to demonstrate how the world's growing capacity to communicate through Internet connectivity -- in words, in pictures, in animation -- can help spread ideas to the places where they're most needed.
Anyone can innovate, but some of the places that are best at it aren't necessarily the best places for that knowledge to be applied. How do you take learnings out of the laboratory and bring them to the rural villages where they'll save the most lives?
For example: ensuring that safe, inexpensive school designs make their way to communities in earthquake zones. (More on this below.)
This communication -- particularly infographics, video and real-time telepresence -- can break through political boundaries and language barriers to spread knowledge, Revkin said.
Revkin touched on a number of disparate subjects during his talk; here are the highlights:
On telemedicine: Revkin was diagnosed with Horner's Syndrome, foreshadowing an eventual stroke, and did so (correction: wished! Revkin e-mailed me to tell me the tech wasn't yet available for his diagnosis. -Ed.) with the help of a remote doctor across the country whose face was digitally reproduced on a bedside robot with which Revkin could interact. The 'bot -- and its high-resolution camera -- allowed the doctor to diagnose his condition with minimal effort and lots of saved time, energy and expense. One problem: regulations require doctors to be bedside to be billed for insurance.
On energy consumption: How can we raise awareness for something we can't easily perceive? By showing scientific proof to the masses. "I haven't seen a lot of evidence saying that we aren't just bacteria growing on agar," he said. "Science is basically the way to tell us there's an edge to the petri dish. There are actually limits to resources, and we do live on a finite planet. How do we modulate behavior to demonstrate we can actually think?"
On knowledge prompting behavior changes: The wiring of global networks is being rearranged, Revkin said. "At least we have this sense of maturation -- that we're moving to new norms."
On the compartmentalization of knowledge, a.k.a. reading online what supports your assumptions. "We're still all dining on comfort food," he said. "But we're at the world's biggest buffet."
On breaking those walls: Physical schools can be places where we go to acquire and shape knowledge, communicate, demonstrate knowledge, foster healthy habits. Networked schools can be places where we go to share successes and failures, relate local to global, collaborate across demographics, borders, cultures.
On the rapidly increasing connectivity of the world: In 2000, two-thirds of all mobile phones -- about 719 million worldwide -- were in developed nations. Now, developing nations represent almost 75 percent of the global total, 5.3 billion devices in 2010. "We're slowly enveloping the world in our own intelligence," he said. Ditto for Facebook's reach into the smallest, poorest villages. "Suddenly, you've got the whole world playing together," he said. "Potentially, the whole world working together."
But the most compelling example Revkin gave were of earthquake-prone villages in developing nations, such as Pakistan and India. How do you help them build safer buildings so that more lives can be saved? Through connectivity. Sometimes all you need is a simple solution, such as changing the design of a wall to be more structural or properly tying rebar to concrete, to save thousands of lives when disaster strikes. You can do it through a short video that shows people how to do it.
The web has powerfully enabled telling stories in multiple media, Revkin said.
"It's not just because it looks prettier on the page to have a little video clip," he said. and if seeing words, hearing words and thinking about words use different parts of the brain, we best make sure our lessons are being learned to their fullest.
"Using visualization of data can [help people grasp] dry data," he said. "It's one thing to have a known quantity, it's another to have people appreciate it and integrate it."
To illustrate his point, he displayed an image showing how small the Earth's total volume of water is relative to its land mass. (It's a golf ball to the Earth's beach ball.) He then explained that the world's freshwater -- from which all living species drink, bathe, and for humans, power industries -- is the size of a pinhead in comparison. A tough dose of reality for a world whose population is at nine billion and growing, sure, but one that needs to -- and can, through technology -- be administered to more people.
"The web has the potential to make us build a sense of community beyond our traditional borders," he said.